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Ex-Executive Donald Blankenship Is Indicted in Disaster at Coal Mine


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Ex-Executive Donald Blankenship Is Indicted in Disaster at Coal Mine

By TRIP GABRIEL

NOVEMBER 13, 2014

The former chief executive of the company involved in the nations worst coal mine disaster in 40 years, in which 29 men died in West Virginia in 2010, was charged on Thursday with widespread violations of safety rules and deceiving federal inspectors.

Donald L. Blankenship, who formerly ran the Massey Energy Company, was indicted on four criminal counts by a federal grand jury in the Upper Big Branch disaster near Montcoal, W.Va.

Mr. Blankenship was accused of looking away from hundreds of safety violations in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.

The 43-page indictment handed up in Charleston, W.Va., the state capital, details how laws about ventilating coal dust and methane gas at the mine were ignored, staffing and tasks needed to improve safety were slashed, and officials responded to surprise visits by safety inspectors by tipping off miners underground using code words.

A powerful explosion at the mine on April 5, 2010, which killed the men working 1,200 feet below the surface, was the result of safety violations that allowed coal dust and methane to ignite, according to a 2011 report by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The disaster, the deadliest in the nation since 1970, has left painful scars even in a state that has long accepted minings toll on life and health, and which celebrates coal as part of its identity. As recently as the elections last week, candidates in House and Senate races boasted of how quickly they had rushed to the Upper Big Branch site four years ago.

Mr. Blankenship, who retired about eight months after the disaster, is well known in the state, where he has donated to conservative political candidates, even as victims families have called for his prosecution. Through a lawyer, he maintained his innocence. Don Blankenship has been a tireless advocate for mine safety, the lawyer, William W. Taylor III, said in a statement. His outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats has earned this indictment. He will not yield to their effort to silence him.

Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia had an unusually sharp reaction. As he goes to trial, he will be treated far fairer and with more dignity than he ever treated the miners he employed, he said. And, frankly, its more than he deserves.

Several investigations have found that Massey routinely ignored safety violations at the mine. The 2011 federal investigation by the mine safety agency concluded that the explosion was preventable and issued 369 citations. Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in 2011, paid $209 million in criminal penalties to settle with the Department of Justice. Two subordinates of Mr. Blankenship, including a former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch mine, have pleaded guilty in criminal cases. Mr. Blankenship faces a maximum of 31 years imprisonment.

The charges hold him personally responsible for the hundreds of safety violations in 28 months leading up to the explosion. They included failing to ventilate coal dust and methane, which are highly explosive, and failing to water down equipment to prevent sparks that could ignite an explosion.

According to the indictment, Mr. Blankenships aggressive enforcement of mining quotas left workers no time to build ventilation systems because constructing them diverted time from coal production. He denied a request to build an air shaft in a mine where airflow was below the legal minimum, the indictment said. He also cut the number of miners focusing on safety in order to make the operation more profitable.

Mr. Blankenship was charged with authorizing a scheme of warnings to miners underground when federal safety inspectors made surprise visits. By using code words and phrases, word was passed by telephone from a guardhouse to a mine office to supervisors deep underground, who ordered miners to quickly cover up violations before inspectors arrived, the indictment said.

Besides charges of conspiracy to violate safety laws and defrauding the federal government, the four-count indictment included a charge of securities fraud and a charge of making false statements to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission.

The president of the United Mine Workers of America, Cecil E. Roberts, hailed the indictment. The carnage that was a recurring nightmare at Massey mines during Blankenships tenure at the head of that company was unmatched, he said.

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/11/14/us/ex-executive-donald-blankenship-is-indicted-in-disaster-at-coal-mine.html

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Usually large corporations have someone in mid management take the fall. Guess that coal mine company wasnt big enough for that.

Its nice to see the actual person responsible get brought to trial. Especially someone who donated to political parties to help him avoid this type of thing.

We'll see if he can buy his way out of this one.
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